Transgressive British Cinema Welcomes the Graces of an Ascending Lead
It’s best known in international hipster circles as the grimy counter-culture hub of Europe, but that sort of “understanding” of Hackney glosses over the fact that in the London borough the further east from Shoreditch you go, the realer and realer shit gets. Cuts to educational programs go hand in hand with decreasing employment opportunities, inciting an across-the-board sense of social exclusion. You’ll likely encounter greater gang activity, and violence, in these communities, and in turn a more oppressive police presence. Soon the oppressiveness of the police becomes emblematic of a greater social injustice, making it seem as though every institution is in on it. Massive unrest is inevitable.
In the waning days of summer in 2011, that’s exactly what happened. Agitation over the police shooting of Mark Duggan (a 29-year-old black man) bloomed into a major Hackney riot.
The critically acclaimed flick My Brother the Devil is set smack-bang in the middle of this disenfranchised and violent world. Directed by first-time filmmaker and Hackney resident Sally El Hosaini, the film is about as home-grown a project as you can get — telling the tale of two brothers living in a run-down council estate, their relationship tested by gang conflicts and the secret homosexuality of one sibling. The film’s chief protagonist, Rashid, is played with unflinching excellence by the increasingly celebrated British acting hope James Floyd. Amid the glowing reviews for the sometimes brutal, often brilliant film, it’s Floyd’s unquestionable talent that shines brightest.
When I meet the actor at Dean Street Townhouse in London’s Soho, we’re a million miles from Hackney’s streets. Regardless of the hype surrounding him (days before our meeting he was announced Best Male Actor at Milan Film Festival), Floyd’s aura is gracious and grounded—but he’s clearly relishing his “moment.” In his own words, he’s “free-styling.”
“This year has been ridiculous. My career is in a different league now,” he says, with a broad and irreverent smile. “But it’s nice to have respect.” His last statement perhaps echoes the very real perspective of the Hackney gangs with whom Floyd spent five months as research for his part. Hosaini instructed him to “hang out with these guys, but don’t get arrested—just absorb.” It’s the same balls-deep methodology that served veteran Daniel-Day Lewis well when he played a working-class homosexual outsider in My Beautiful Laundrette.
“I had no reservations!” Floyd enthuses when I ask the obvious question—how a clearly well-raised young man (he admits to being the son of middle-class mixed-race north London “hippies”) had taken to the role of a gay immigrant gangster in Hackney. “Playing something along the lines of ‘Gay Muslim Gangster’ is exactly what I want as an actor. I want to play things that are unique. I haven’t had that kind of extreme experience that someone like Rashid has had. As an actor, it’s a blessing to be able to explore a character like that.”
His willingness to “explore” was already evident in The Best Possible Taste, in which he plays Queen’s flamboyant frontman, Freddie Mercury, and he makes countless asides about wanting to play a woman next. It’s apparent he’s fascinated by the unconventional, and intrigued by other perspectives.
He describes a brief unscheduled stay with Mormons in Utah on his way to the Sundance Film Festival, where his political views were opposite from his host’s. “That’s what I think helps you the most as an actor—you have to challenge yourself to think like other people. I’m not saying I’m suddenly going to become a Mormon or a Republican. I won’t. But spending a few days with them meant I could understand them more.”
Understanding and empathy are what the craft of acting is about for Floyd. He confesses that being so open-minded can be “confusing,” but he has a keen penchant for risk-taking. He has been acting since he dropped out of his first year at the revered London School of Economics where he was studying philosophy. “I’m a big dropout,” he laughs. “It’s all well and fine at that college—a lot of bankers—but really, I didn’t want to be responsible for the next recession.”
He laughs and continues, “My parents freaked out when I quit but I said politely: ‘I love you guys, but fuck you, it’s my life.’ Of course, they’re changing their minds now,” he says.
But the going is difficult, especially to get to where you want to be. “I really think you’ve got to fail, man,” he says, as the waiter approaches and our time draws to a close. “Fail big. Because the only way you’re gonna succeed in an interesting way is doing something wacko. I remember when I was growing up … succeeding in the way that mainstream society tells you to … fuck that. Just go and do something different, man–be whatever.”